Monday, March 30, 2009

Indie Games meet Global Politics

I'm always surprised when my two biggest interests, international conflict resolution and video games, collide. Usually the result is some sort of World War 2 first-person-shooter, which is fun but generally fails to actually, you know, promote international conflict resolution.

I've just ran across an independent game that seems to take a different take on the idea. It's called Storytron: Balance of Power in the 21st century. In it, you play an American leader following 9-11 trying to set the world right.

Being a hippie who hates America and who bathes in flowers, I immediately set about trying to improve America's relations with the Middle East. As a first step, I humbly asked Israel to recognize Palestine and to remove its settlements in the West Bank. Imagine my shock when Israel refused, even after I went and brought the EU to the table, and India. Even after I offered some trade agreements and some moderate political prodding, my efforts to promote a just world were rebuffed.

So, just to see what would happen, I clicked the "nuke Israel" button.

I quickly learned that it is a bad idea to nuke Israel. My international standing dropped like a rock. I was uniformly condemned by my European allies, who rallied behind - get this - Kim Jung Il of North Korea to pass a censure vote against America in the United Nations. On the plus side, however, what was left of Israel did end up recognizing Palestine. I decided to retire in infamy and lick my wounds on the political sidelines. To the right is my ending scorecard, with American power in the world ultimately dropping slightly, and American credibility in the world non-existent. I wonder if this is how Bush felt leaving office...

I had a bit of fun with this game putting my political ideology to the test. If anything this game has definitely illustrated that the non-violent course of action is a very difficult one. I plan to try a few more times and see if I can't do it all right.

In all seriousness - I would never accept a nuclear option in real life - I think this game presents some interesting opportunities to challenge our beloved mindsets. Everyone who has an opinion about how we should have handled the world following 9/11, please check out the link above.

On a side note, I can't help but underline how important it is that it was a game that caused me to think about my own ideology. Games aren't just Super Mario Brothers, folks... they sometimes present complex and difficult themes, in ways that simple stories or movies can't. I've been mining the Indie Game scene, and I can say for absolute certain that games like these are not uncommon phenomena. They're out there, and they deserve recognition.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Onlive - Truly Astounding Games Evolution

I've been paying attention to the Games Developers Conference that's been going on this week in California, and some really innovative stuff is landing. By far the biggest splash I've seen was generated by OnLive, an online web service that allows one to play video games over the internet. The astounding thing about this service is that the games one plays aren't simply flash games - mainly 2d concepts that run in a tiny window of the screen - nor is one downloading a massive, high tech title that runs only poorly on an entry-level computer. At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, OnLive is an amazing work of technology because it allows the user to play any title made available to it, from the Xbox360, the PC, the Playstation 3 - at full graphics quality, by streaming it over the internet.

Take a look at this GDC expo. It's a little long, but the first few minutes hit the major key points.

The interesting thing about this is that it lowers the bar of who can play high-end videogames. An interesting example of this is the game Crisis, a game that many view to be a benchmark for gaming rigs. Designed several years ago for games of the future, there are thousand-dollar machines out there now that still must strain to the upmost to play Crisis at its highest settings. Yet OnLive service effectively cuts that $2000 pricetag down to the cost of a its own subscription fee and the cost of high-speed cable. Sitting at my entry-level laptop from two years ago, I can play Crisis at max settings over the internet, at high def, with virtually no latenence issues.

I think this is going to have a dramatic impact on the games market. Game-distribution companies like Gametap have existed for years and have not radically reshaped the way that we play games because the hottest, big-ticket items still cost large amounts of money to play through them, and only run poorly on a low-end rig. OnLive, at least on the surface, offers every game on the interet to be played instantly at max-settings, for the cost of a subscription fee. Even for $60 a month, which is what I pay for games anyway, the advantage of effectively owning every game on the OnLive server is a really, really, big deal. We may be seeing the next iteration of the new age of digital distribution, wherein games are bought and sold purely over the internet, and the death of physical CD boxes.

How exciting! Let's see what happens.

An interview with the developer can be found here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Presidency - Worst Job Ever

The Onion totally got it right - this black man has the worst job in the world. Ted Kopec is insane.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Iran and the US - On the Path to Renewed Relations?

Despite yesterday's New York Times article declaring that "Iran's Supreme Leader Rebuffs Obama", I think there are some encouraging signs that relations between Iran and the US are going to get better.

Throughout his campaign for the Presidency, Barack Obama maintained a unique perspective on what the United State's relations with Iran should be. While many disagreed with President Bush's decision to dub Iran a member of "The Axis of Evil," there were few mainstream politicians who openly advocated the renewal of direct diplomatic negotiations with Iran, which had been terminated after the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. As a result, Obama's statement that as President he would be open to direct talks with Iranian leaders, without pre-conditions, became debate point during the primary and general campaigns. It was one of the reasons I first became attracted to him as a candidate.

The shift in White House diplomatic rhetoric became apparent not long after his inauguration. Most of the news world was surprised when Obama selected Al Arabiya, an Arabic news station, to conduct his first video interview after the inauguration. When asked about Iran, he maintained the stance of the previous administration in that the United States did not look favorably upon a nuclear weapon-armed Iran, but he also injected a note of conciliatory dialogue.
"Now, the Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization. Iran has acted in ways that's not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past -- none of these things have been helpful.

But I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

Al Arabiya interview - 26/01/09
A full transcript of the interview can be found here.
This week the White House released a video on the beginning the Iranian holiday of Nowruz, which marks the beginning of spring and the new year. The message heavily emphasized a language of respect for the Iranian history and culture.

Of course, a rhetoric of respect on one side does not mean that the diplomatic issues that have divided the US and Iran are going to somehow resolve themselves. For one thing, Iranian leaders themselves have been fairly reticent in their response to the message. President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei both pointed out in this week that US and US engineered sanctions against Iran remain in place, preventing the trade of many goods that would be extremely beneficial to Iran's economy. Khamenei, before a crowd of ten thousand in the city of Mashaad, declared that “They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice,” and, unless you count the American invitation of Iran to a panel on Afghanistan, he's right. While its rhetoric has shifted substantially, White House policy towards is essentially unchanged in these first few weeks of the Obama Administration.

Then again, this is how things get started.

In his speech Khamenei also addressed the American nation saying, “should you change, our behavior will change, too.” One way to look at this situation is to see it as a mirror of the last 30 years of policy in which each side refused to budge until the other backed down. But I choose to emphasize, with the coming of a new regime, the possibility that United States is on the verge of a paradigm shift. Obama's foreign policy has always projected itself as much more conciliatory than its predecessor's - a magnanimous gesture such as reducing sanctions, or suggesting the establishment of embassies, is very much in keeping with the political image Obama has generated for himself thus far.

Ultimately, I am aware that Obama has yet to radically evolve the way the United States and Iran interact, and I'm conscious that he probably will be unable make a significant change until after the economic crisis at home has been resolved. But, in seeing all the political groundwork-laying work that the Obama administration has performed, I am fairly "hopeful" that there will be an evolution in the way the White House does international relations. Obama has talked the talk - now let's see the "change" he intends to bring to American Foreign Policy.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Accepted to GW

I've just received an email from the Elliott School of George Washington University. They've accepted me and offered a fellowship of $6,000 dollars. I am going to grad school!

I'm a little blown away by all this. Washington D.C. is filled with very, very smart people. To get the chance to work and study, with all these big names and minds, IN THE CAPITOL, is an incredible honor. My dream of becoming an international diplomat is one step closer to becoming a reality.

Now I have to figure out how to get there, how to pay for it, and how to leave Boston and all my friends and family behind. Talk about life altering decisions! But I am excited, very excited, and I've never felt more hopeful that somehow I'll actually make a difference in this world.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Technology Curve

Full Size Image Here.

I haven't updated Repiphany! in such a long time! Here is strip #16 - This Will Be Us Someday. I have to credit Jason Potteiger for the inspiration - it comes from deep discussion he and I fell into the other day as to how our generation is adhering to the technology curve. Or rather, from his point of view, how it isn't.

It's an interesting perspective. Most of us young 20-somethings use Facebook on a daily basis, but sometimes it seems as though we're starting to drop off using the new websites as they arrive. Twitter, LinkedIn... I know I don't use them, or really even know what they do. I imagine that as I grow older I'll slide even further into my groove of comfortable products, adopting new technologies every now and then but in no way keeping with the exponential growth of the new market. Flash forward forty years - I see myself trying to bond with my son through a friendly videogame. I gesture at the now-archaic Xbox 360 and he responds with a giggle. I decide to play his games and eventually end up baffled by an immersive reality simulator. Eventually I sigh and exit the world as my laughing son redesigns the laws of physics.

Ah well. I've made plenty of fun of my father for not using Firefox plugins. Getting ridiculed by my future cyborg child sounds like my just reward!

In other news, I mentioned a few posts ago that I've been working on a game idea. I've dubbed the game Project Ascent until I can come up with an appropriate title. As a teaser, here is the sketch that lead to the game idea (click on the image for fullsize). More to follow in the coming weeks as I finish up the story board for Stage One.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I am a world famous videogame programmer! ... of sorts.

How many of you were like me and taught math using a TI-83 graphic calculator? My school required that we all pick oneup in 8th grade (this, says my father, doomed my left brain forever) and supposedly it was going to revolutionize the way that my generation learned about mathematics. As it turns out, all that they really revolutionized was our ability to play games in class- to this day nobody has managed to beat Sean Kennedy's tetris score, which is all he and everyone else played in the first week they were released.
Being the coolest kid in the class I naturally began programing for the calculator. By the time we finished high school I was actually pretty handy with the thing - my teacher-mode application that hid all programs (i.e. games) had become quite popular in some circles. But my true pride and joy was a program which I developed in secret for almost a month. It was an application called Archmage Arena, and it was a text-based brawler in which you faced off against a computer opponent and used a variety of spells to deal damage. Different spells did more or less damage and were more or less likely to hit. It was pretty simple, but I and a few of my friends enjoyed it. After a few weeks of playing it on the bus I ended up posting it on the TI program-sharing website and forgot all about it.
Flash forward to the present - I googled my name yesterday and browsed through my internet existence. Most of them had to do with the other Derek Gildea out there (apparently my doppleganger is a genetist who fights prostate cancer in Sweden) but on the third search page I ran across this link.
It was my old Archmage Program! And what is more shocking, the file seems to have done fairly well for itself in the near-decade since I released it. Apparently it has been downloaded 10,042 times, making it the single most viewed thing I have ever created on the internet. Out of something close to 30,000 programs, Mage Arena ranks 1353 in total downloads, easily within the top 3%. There is even a little blurb of a site review, and although it's just one line, it makes me happy: "No animation, but it's achieved a high rating in our sources."
It's a bit of a shame that I never finished the sequel. A few weeks after I published the first game a friend took my calculator at the bus stop and as a prank deleted everything off of it, including the nearly-complete Archmage 2.0, which featured five levels of difficulty and images of opponents. That one incident was the first and only time I have ever hit someone out of anger. I went to a C++ camp the summer after high school but never took my programming skills any further.
Well, all that is about to change! I'm pleased to announce that I have begun work on a new project - this time for the PC. At present it is still in the design phase, and I'll publish more information soon, but at present let me say that it is a 2d platformer with an emphasis on creative story-telling.
Maybe I'll write a port for the TI-83, though, for old time's sake.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Help Me Fight the Good Fight... Against Cancer

On April 18th, I will be participating in the Relay for Life, an event sponsored by the American Cancer Society in order to raise money to fight cancer. I am a part of the Suffolk University Honors Society team. At 6pm we will begin a walking relay around the BU track course and remain walking for 12 consecutive hours. The idea is to increase awareness for cancer patients in America and raise money to combat the disease.

It would mean a lot to me if I could get your support. Please consider donating $5 to my team. Our goal is to raise at least $1000, and every contribution counts towards completing that goal.

Please click here to donate. Remember, Three Dog would approve.

In other news, I recently met Gwen Ifill, of Washington Week in Review fame. You may know her better as the moderator from the 2004 and 2008 VP debates. She came to Boston yesterday and gave a very interesting lecture about race and politics in the United States. If you haven't seen Washington Week in Review, go there now - you won't find a better program for unbiased news reporting and commentary.